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Vancouver had a count of 533 people sleeping outside this past winter, despite a push to build thousands of new social-housing units, a leading researcher says.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver won't solve street homelessness until both the city and province focus on targeting the limited supply of expensive social housing to those who need it most, say experts.

That means help can't go to anyone who passes through a shelter or an outdoor camp or even to someone who sleeps outside temporarily. In the vast majority of cases, people who become homeless experience it briefly and are able to avoid losing housing again.

But people working on eliminating homelessness do not always understand that the thousands of people who experience homelessness in a year don't all need expensive subsidized housing. That should be reserved for the chronically homeless, who are not sufficiently helped by temporary assistance with rent or other social supports.

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"For nearly 90 per cent of people counted as homeless, they'll get themselves out of homelessness on their own," says Tim Richter, who led Calgary's 10-year plan to end homelessness and is now the president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. "It's critical to set priorities. It shouldn't be first-come, first-served."

One of the region's most experienced homelessness researchers, former Vancouver city-hall staffer Judy Graves, said the city is reaping the results of city and provincial staff not always setting the right priorities for the past six years. This past winter, Vancouver still had a count of 533 people sleeping outside (less than in 2008, but more than in 2011), even though the province and city have opened up thousands of new social-housing units rented at welfare-level rates.

It's an issue that is returning to haunt Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who promised in 2008 to end street homelessness by 2015, during this fall's civic-election campaign.

His administration, which has pushed the issue non-stop since he was first elected, has recently exceeded previous efforts by jumping last month into paying for all the costs of converting a downtown Quality Inn to transitional housing, as well as all the costs of a new shelter nearby. Usually the province covers the majority of costs for both of those kinds of housing.

But Ms. Graves said even that unusual effort, accompanied by several hundred other new provincial units about to open, isn't going to solve the problem by January, 2015.

That's because the province is only committed to using half of the incoming housing units for the chronically homeless. And city staff also don't always correctly identify who is the most in need.

"Both the city and province have bought into housing by wait lists," said Ms. Graves. "It just can't work. You have to work as though you're in a disaster zone."

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She said she had doubts that the majority of people who camped in Oppenheimer Park over the summer were homeless, but they got priority for the scarce number of rooms available.

As well, in the early stages of the province's big social-housing construction push, which will see 14 towers completed with around 1,400 units by the end, non-profit operators were simply moving people from residential hotel rooms into the new buildings.

That meant the housing didn't go to the chronically homeless and the most in need, but worse, it then allowed landlords in the residential hotels to do renovations, raise rents, or refuse new low-income tenants once the former tenants were relocated to social housing.

That then reduced the overall number of private, low-cost housing units in the city. Ms. Graves said the whole region is experiencing an acute shortage of those kinds of private units now. It has become a game of musical chairs for housing-outreach workers to get a low-cost unit for someone trying to get out of shelters or off the street, she said.

All cities are grappling with constant pressures that create more homelessness at the front end: low working-class incomes that can't keep up with gentrification and rising rents key among them, said Ms. Graves. That has left cities trying to solve the problem at the back end, trying to house all the people made homeless as a result of many larger forces.

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